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PA state universities freeze tuition for third consecutive year

For the third consecutive year, Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities are holding the line on tuition.

The State System of Higher Education’s governing board voted unanimously on Thursday to freeze tuition and the systemwide technology fee at the 2019-20 levels.

Despite the financial woes facing the state universities prompting some radical changes and pleas from university presidents for at least a 1% increase, the board’s decision will mean students will pay the same amount in tuition next fall as upperclassmen paid this year and last year.

The in-state two-semester undergraduate rate in 2021-22 will remain at $7,716 and the technology fee will stay at $478.

System Chancellor Dan Greenstein recommended the freeze out of compassion for the financial challenges many students are facing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been a tough year for our students, particularly, you know the students that we serve,” Greenstein said in an earlier interview with PennLive. “It’s the wrong thing to do to raise tuition and fees.”

Given the hardships students faced this past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein said, “It’s the wrong thing to do to raise tuition and fees” for next year.

After all, he said it is a public system of higher education where affordability is supposed to be one of its attractive features that draws students from low- and middle-income families. But the affordability advantage the system held over Penn State, Pitt, Temple, Lincoln and private universities for so long is evaporating.

On average, the typical cost of attendance at a system university is now about $22,000 a year, leading to a declining percentage of its undergraduates who come from families with incomes of less than $110,000.

“We just can’t keep going in that direction and pursue our mission,” Greenstein said. “We’ve got to reach a different place in the way we operate and what we charge our students.”

That’s why he told the board he prefers to stick with a tuition and technology freeze for another year.

Board member Tom Muller said he wrestled with supporting that recommendation. He acknowledged that university presidents favored a 1% tuition increase, which would have asked each student to pay $82 more. But he said he came around to agreeing with the chancellor, saying, “We can’t keep loading costs onto our students.”

Board member Alexander Fefolt, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania student, also supported the freeze. “For me as a student, I can afford it,” he said. “Let me speak for the students that aren’t here right now that cannot. This is the right way to go.”

Other board members spoke in favor of keeping tuition at the current levels. Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County, said an additional $82 could mean the difference between whether some students can afford to attend a university or not.

“Having three years in a row without a tuition increase is great news for our students and potential students,” Roae said.

Cuts threaten quality

But several university presidents shared their concern about the impact of what another year of frozen tuition would mean for their schools, particularly since Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed keeping the state funding for the system for next year at the current $477.5 million.

East Stroudsburg University President Kenneth Long said while he agrees a tuition increase isn’t in the students’ best interest, it will mean additional faculty and staff cuts unless more funding can be found. He called for a bigger investment into the system by the commonwealth.

Kutztown University President Kenneth Hawkinson voiced his hope that the system board does more to control labor costs in future negotiations with the unions because “those rising costs, along with no increases in tuition or from the Legislature, is really making it next to impossible to do our jobs.”

Shippensburg University President Laurie Carter further made it clear that asking universities to deal with increased cost while receiving no additional revenue is challenging their ability to meet the system’s mission of providing a quality education at an affordable cost.

“That’s just not realistic,” Carter said. “You cannot continue to cut, cut, cut and provide quality at the same time. We have continued to do that but there will come a point when it’s not going to be possible. So instead of providing students with a lower cost education, we have to be thinking of the whole picture. The quality of their education matters and we have got to be mindful of that as we move forward.”

Along with the tuition freeze, system officials said the majority of the universities have approved holding room and board charges for at current levels.

At Millersville, for example, that means room charges will remain at $3,894 to $4,953 per semester depending on the residence hall and board charges at $2,100 per semester.

The system has been facing a decade-long decline in enrollment, dropping from more than 118,000 students in 2011 to 93,700 this year. Along with that impact to its revenue stream, the state system receives $477.5 million in state aid, which remains $25 million less than what the system received 10 years ago.

‘Trying to save

the system’

The system is pursuing plans that aim to put its universities on a more sustainable path, so the more financially stable universities don’t have to continue to subsidize the fiscally challenged schools. Greenstein has said the system is now about five or six years away form spending down all of its reserves.

Along with other less dramatic changes, the plan is calling for the consolidation of the six universities into two institutions — with Mansfield, Lock Haven and Bloomsburg forming a single university and Clarion, California and Edinboro forming another.

The system’s governing board is looking to meet at 8:30 a.m. on April 28 to consider approval of preliminary implementation plans for those consolidations. The system was granted the authority to consider such a change through a state law enacted last summer. That law requires a 60-day public comment period to gather input once the preliminary plans are approved.

The earliest a final decision to implement the consolidations could be made is in July. If approved, the soonest the first class of students could enter the combined universities would be in the fall of 2022.

Those plans include moving the three universities under the same leadership team with a single faculty, an array of academic programs available to students on all three campuses, and operating under a single budget. None of the campuses would be closed. Further, the system is looking to allow each university to preserve its own identity and asking for the NCAA’s blessing to allow each campus to have its own athletic programs.

Greenstein has said the proposed consolidations are not intended to save money but rather position those sets of universities on a path that could lead to growth in enrollment and more financial stability.

The plan to combine Lock Haven with Bloomsburg and Mansfield universities is encountering resistance from the Lock Haven community as well as from the commissioners of Clinton County where the university sits. The faculty at the universities slated to be consolidated also are not sold on the idea.

A recent poll by the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties found nearly 70% of faculty members who teach at one of the affected universities do not support the move. Less than 8% of faculty respondents supported it.

“No one would do this if we didn’t have to. It’s not fun,” Greenstein said. “We’re basically trying to save the system in the interest of our students and the future of the state of Pennsylvania and every single path that we have requires that we do things fundamentally differently.”

$7M loan to a struggling school

Illustrating the financial challenges, the system’s board agreed Thursday to lend Mansfield University up to $7 million to help it sustain its operations through this academic year. This is on top of a loan approved last year for up to $6 million as the university struggles to align its costs with revenues and downsize its faculty and staff.

“What you’re seeing in Mansfield is an example of what’s happening elsewhere across the system,” Greenstein said. “As enrollments decline, universities have to curtail their academic programs and student supports and adds further downward pressure to enrollments.”

He noted Mansfield’s enrollment has somewhat stabilized but the proposed consolidation with Bloomsburg and Lock Haven — or integration as he calls it — “allows them to offer as others all the benefits of residential education and the breadth of academic programs that are available to three universities working together.”

This cross-subsidization of universities across the system became a flashpoint during an exchange with a senator at a recent Senate hearing. Greenstein warned without changes that stop the financial bleeding, he would be recommending dissolving the system.

Greenstein later made it clear that is not his preference. Still, his comment struck a nerve with faculty and some lawmakers. He said that reaction is understandable because “what we’re up to is very hard. It’s very challenging and I’m very empathetic to the impact it has on people.”

Other universities in the system include Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Indiana, Kutztown, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester.

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